The pandemic has put a hard stop to on-premise imbibing (in most places), but that doesn’t mean consumers are any less thirsty. Without the guiding pours of a beverage industry professional, many bon vivants have found themselves floating aimlessly through a sea of bottle shops and grocery stores, too intimidated by the countless choices to make a solid decision, scared to wind up with something that doesn’t suit their palate, and sometimes leaving empty-handed.
Enter their lifesaver: the virtual tasting.
Christopher Quinn owns and runs the much-beloved Beer Temple in Chicago and built the foundation of his now-booming virtual tasting business within a few days of the Illinois shutdown. Quinn says that initially the tastings were a way to have “something lighthearted…a way to decompress and see other people” and they have since grown in composition and popularity in the past ten months (ten centuries?) to the point that inquiries are coming in every day. These virtual events have the capacity to serve consumer needs while simultaneously amplifying brand reach, and Quinn explains that “with the lack of a way for brands to get in front of the end consumer, [virtual tastings] can get engagement [with] more of a long-format discussion.” He believes that this outlet creates an “unprecedented” level of engagement for brands due to the fact that “[consumers] are sitting there for half an hour to an hour or more just listening” and that even in a pre-COVID world, “it’s hard to get that level [of attention].”
Another movement to creating the self-assured sip can be found in Slik Wines: an intersectionally-minded virtual wine education platform co-founded by somm trio Marie Cheslik, Kyla Peal, and Danielle Norris. Slik’s ethos is “making [wine] accessible for everyone,” and Norris reassures that “none of this has to be scary” because “if we are truly doing our job, we are creating comfort” in giving consumers “confidence when [they] go to the store.” The highly-customizable spread of offerings in their tastings bursts wine’s often-austere bubble and opens the world of wine to even the most timid tippler. Cheslik points to their inventive consumer-focused Blind Tasting 101, an exercise previously shrouded in the “serious master somm category” but that has been Slik’d into “a fun drinking game” as virtual education that both relaxes and energizes its participants.
In addition to seeing clients immediately purchase the products their tastings have introduced them to, both Quinn and the Slik team feel that the level of approachable and familiar engagement that exists in the virtual tasting sphere creates a highly-coveted intimate relationship between brand and consumer. “[Consumers] need someone to say ‘this is delicious, you gotta check it out, you’re gonna love it,'” which Cheslik says naturally leads to people going out and saying ” ‘I remember us having that and now I feel comfortable [buying it].'” The sometimes-intimidating atmosphere of a tableside somm (where often the standing professional is literally talking down to the seated self-effacing guest) is hence transformed into a casual, cordial conversation between co-humans that are alike in their potable passion.
If a brand is still on the fence about whether or not to partner up for a virtual tasting, Quinn urges that “now is the time to do it” because it’s still exciting and fresh and has potential to further lay the groundwork to “iterate off of it once we can be in-person.” Additionally, with bars and restaurants closed, holiday celebrations have been relocated to homes, meaning there is a unique chance for brands to incorporate themselves into lasting personal memories with their consumer base. Slik has taken this opportunity to the next level, curating the créme de la créme of a party by partnering with a brand to offer a stellar steal of a New Year’s Eve deal for two (i.e. a magnum of brut reserve Champagne, 50g of caviar plus fixins and two Mother of Pearl spoons, a CONFETTI CANNON, and exclusive access to Zoom festivities that will pop 2020 into oblivion). “We are your freelance sommeliers,” says Cheslik, reiterating that Slik’s role as a “liaison” to enjoying wine “spreads the good word” and creates and educated and confident consumer base. It is through this innovation by industry pros like Quinn, Cheslik, Peal, and Norris that the platform of virtual tasting builds an inviting bridge between brands and consumers, establishing loyalty that will last long after the pandemic is in the past.
“No one paid Pappy much mind, until 1997, when the Beverage Testing Institute in Chicago… gave it a 99 out of 100.” The rest is history.
The Beverage Development and Marketing Alliance is a strategic partnership of Beverage Testing Institute, Bond Moroch, and Clout. This presentation focuses on strategies for revitalizing ‘orphan’ brands in beverage portfolios.
Beverage Testing Institute’s panel of spirits industry experts presented an American Distilling Institute 2020 Conference seminar about the simple and sophisticated market research tools available to craft brands. Featuring:
Monique Huston, Vice President of Wholesale Spirits for Winebow
Lee Zaremba, Corporate Beverage Director fof Boka restaurant group
Chuck Lyle, Director of Marketing and Innovation at Green River Spirits Company (Formerly Terressentia Corporation)
Jerald O’Kennard, Executive Director of Beverage Testing Institute
Laura Kruming-Berg, Associate Director of Beverage Testing Institute
“We’ve seen some people start to feel that maybe packaging is not as important and I would make the argument that it’s more important than ever.” – David Schuemann, Owner/Creative Principal of CF Napa Brand Design
It is widely known that the alcohol beverage market is saturated with offerings, and the clamor for coveted space in consumers’ shopping carts is only becoming more competitive. BTI spoke with brand design firms from coast to coast that vehemently assert that the foundation of a brand’s success, as well as its failure, lies in its packaging. Though these authorities forecast imminent collapse for brands that don’t invest in professional design, that blend in with the crowd, and that rush through fine details in development, they have also shared their keen insights on forward-thinking strategies that, if heeded, both establish and secure the modern consumer’s attention.
1. Don’t Be Cheap
According to our design experts, one of the biggest mistakes a brand can make is not allocating room in the budget for packaging development. David Schuemann, Owner and Creative Principal of CF Napa Brand Design, says that “we’ve seen some people start to feel that maybe packaging is not as important and I would make the argument that it’s more important than ever.” Kevin Shaw, Owner of design firm Stranger & Stranger, points out that “you have to get inside your customer’s head” in order to avoid “designing for yourself.” According to Scout Driscoll, Founder and CEO of wine branding and design firm VINT, another pitfall is “having your friends design a label.” Driscoll urges even smaller producers to invest in a professional designer because “if you don’t sell it, if people aren’t buying it, you’re going out of business.” Nicole Flores and Kat Karpati, Creative and Executive Directors at Hatch Design, say that many brands they’ve worked with start with in-house design, but that then, eventually, “a few years down the road, they’ll come to us to help them get to the next level.”
Schuemann understands that a lot of producers are “bootstrapping it,” but pushes that investing in professional designers is essential because, initially, “what [you’re] selling is the packaging more than the product itself.” Most design firms have tiered pricing in order to offer solutions for a range of budgets, and “given that distributors are not just out there pounding the pavement,” Schuemann justifies the metrics for successful packaging as being delivered in “clean numbers” when sales jump. When working with designers, Driscoll encourages brands to “make your marketing choices with your head and not your gut.” For those smaller producers that are tentative about affording a designer, she notes that “if they have one beautiful label design that’s locked in and recognizable” they can modify that slightly across the numerous offerings within the brand, a solution that’s “much more affordable than doing a custom design for every single [product] they offer.” Having outside eyes on a packaging project can also create a better idea of not just who a brand is but “what they want to be,” and Flores and Karpati feels this emboldens producers to “see the forest through the trees.”
“If you don’t sell it, if people aren’t buying it, you’re going out of business.” Scout Driscoll, Founder and CEO of wine branding and design firm VINT
2. Don’t Be Boring
A common challenge faced when launching a product in an overflowing category is making your brand stand out while maintaining recognizable characteristics. Driscoll acknowledges that “there’s certainly a long legacy of aesthetics that are tied to certain styles of wine” and that you want your brand’s packaging to “trigger those feelings” while still “pushing the envelope,” further pressing that “when people don’t differentiate, when they copy or try to follow in the footsteps of their biggest competitor, it’s a huge mistake because they’re not identifying what makes their brand unique.” Schuemann echoes warnings against this, giving the example of a client that was in the “saturated sector” of vodka, describing that it had a “fairly decent following” but “terrible packaging” that was not lined up with the quality of the product, and therefore did not stand out on shelves already jostling with clear offerings. Shaw agrees that packaging shouldn’t just fall in line with that of the others in its category; he “cuts to the chase” and asks, if on a long row of similar products, “why should anyone care about [your brand]?” Shaw adds that in ensuring your product stands out, “yearly trends are never to be followed” for many reasons, but essentially because “it can take two years for a brand to make it from briefing to shelf stocking and will look out of date before it’s even launched.” Flores and Karpati further surmise that with every trend comes a “backswing.”
There are many solutions to making sure a brand doesn’t fall into what Shaw refers to as an “existential wormhole.” Driscoll attests that “all consumers truly crave an authentic brand,” and just need “something they can connect with that’s rooted in a very clear story.” Schuemann calls this the “brand essence,” the “heart and soul of the brand,” and encourages the development of a story around which to “wrap the packaging” to help express it, a process his firm took with the redesign of the aforementioned vodka which has since “completely taken off.” Flores and Karpati urge brands to be “provocative” with their packaging because many consumers have chosen their go-to products and therefore need “inspired desire” to be “provoked” into a new promised experience. In taking the risk of pushing forwards provocatively, Shaw reassures that “polarization is good,” and that it’s okay if “[some] people don’t like you” as long as “some people love you.”
“Why should anyone care about [your brand]?” – Kevin Shaw, Owner of design firm Stranger & Stranger
3. Don’t Rush & Gloss – Brush & Polish
Even after carefully examining the many facets of packaging that reflect a brand’s identity, things can still fall through the cracks. Schuemann often sees a lack of attention given to functionality and finds it “amazing” that so many products wind up with “bubbles and rips and tears and labels that go on crooked and just don’t look very good” as well as the headache of “[bottle] shapes that couldn’t hold the screenprinting or label,” leaving producers with “thousands of bottles they can’t use” and expensive delays that butt up against launch dates. Though it should be obvious, he also urges that brands ensure their labels are TTB compliant and to be aware of possible trademark infringement, warning that “you kinda get what you pay for” when “there are a lot of online design resources…that are just copying things they’ve seen” which can result in “lawsuits that will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars down the road.”
When running over your packaging with a fine-tooth comb, consider that the specific patterns of the current market are instrumental to your brand’s prosperity. We don’t need to be reminded that we are living in a world in which social media is a heavily relied-upon platform, and Driscoll counsels that “it’s really important that your packaging design be recognizable on a tiny phone” because “your label, for the most part with people buying online, is going to be a centimeter tall” so it’s crucial that your brand is “differentiated at a glance.” Driscoll cautions that “if you’re not saying something distinct” that can be interpreted “in the blink of an eye,” then “you’ve really not done your product justice.” Once purchased, Flores and Karpati carry the importance of stressing instantaneous brand identification into the modern era of “grab and go, single-serve” products. As opposed to the time consumers spend with a “gallon of milk or orange juice that sits in [the] fridge” for a number of days, consumers are spending mere minutes to hours with single serving beverages, which means that your brand’s packaging has a limited amount of time in which to convey its story and offerings. An additional way to secure what Shaw refers to as “well-designed products that over-deliver on the shelf” that simultaneously “deliver clear stories on screen,” both Driscoll and Schuemann avidly emphasize the display or awards and tasting notes. “When you’re selling online you have a consumer that can’t pick [your product] up, can’t touch it and feel it and certainly can’t taste it,’ which Schuemann acknowledges makes it “that much harder” to describe the “intrinsic value.” Driscoll finds the solution in “including a tasting profile” in addition to any awards in order to drive home “what really makes [your product] special.”
With almost 40 years of experience with thousands of brands, BTI can confirm that problematic planning yields problematic packaging, and that corner-cutting, monotonous, and thoughtless products do not succeed. BTI’s Associate Director, Laura Kruming-Berg, further stresses the lessons offered by these expert designers, concluding that “this is not just marketing speak from design firms seeking new clients,” nor “tactics for big budget brands,” but rather “non-negotiable rules for brands of all sizes.”
“We are in a period of inspiration.” – Mark Davidson, Head of Education in the Americas for Wine Australia
Australia’s winemaking history may be shorter than that of many of the world’s well-known viniferous regions, yet in that short span of time centuries’ worth of change has occurred. Through conversations with some of the category’s most notable emissaries, we reveal their strategies for ensuring that consumers get down with wines from Down Under.
Understanding Past Misconceptions
Rebecca Loewy, Great Lakes Sales Director at Old Bridge Cellars, has been working with Aussie wine for over 15 years and has seen all of the fluctuations in consumer demand in that time. “Pretty much from 2008 on, the press started bagging on Australia” during the trend of “98 point, American oak, heavily-extracted Shiraz.” Though Loewy explains that consumers were initially happy with this style, their perspective “caught up” with what the press was telling them, creating a notion that Australian wines were something to be dismissed. This led to what Mark Davidson, Head of Education in the Americas for Wine Australia, defines as the most common consumer misconception of the category: that Australia is a “hot country” and that “all the wines are rich, full-bodied, and high in alcohol.” Loewy recalls a wine tasting just over five years ago where she was pouring regional Australian wines, explaining to a consumer the varietals and where they’d been grown, and they responded by saying ” ‘Yeah, I don’t drink Australian wine.'” The interwoven yet simple osmosis between press and consumer had created, for a long time, what Loewy refers to as a “monolithic” perception of Aussie wine as a whole.
The impressions of those in the consumer-facing trade field are also important to consider. Rebecca Miles-Steiner is the wine and spirits buyer at Chicago’s Plum Market and she explains that when she first got into retail the “distinctive and celebrated full-bodied style” of Barossa Shiraz was the main vein being tapped. In her initial studies, Miles-Steiner became aware that much of the wine being imported was “value and bulk,” what Henry Hudson, Executive Director of Hudson Wine Brokers, refers to as the “cheap critter wines found in supermarkets.” Though Miles-Steiner always had a sense that it was a “wine of place,” it was through the efforts of Wine Australia, “possibly the most effective and active of any of the many national wine marketing boards,” that she came to truly understand and appreciate the diversity and high-value of Aussie wine offerings.
“Today’s consumer is more adventurous,” and Davidson believes this will lead to a greater willingness to try “different varieties and styles.” Loewy encourages the modern adventurous consumer by “building a bridge” using what they are familiar with and guiding them by explaining that if, for example, they enjoy Cabernet Sauvignon, “you know Napa, you know Bordeaux, well here’s two places in Australia where it grows beautifully,” adding that because land is more available and inexpensive, “your $20 bottle of Cab from Coonawarra is going to have significantly higher quality” due to “better quality grapes.”
“I live and breathe this stuff.” – Rebecca Loewy, Great Lakes Sales Director at Old Bridge Cellars
As consumers are beckoned by familiar varietals, they can be opened up to the broad and innovative spectrum of Australian wine. Davidson reminds us that “Australia does not have any indigenous or native grape varieties” but that “we are in a period of inspiration rather than emulation” meaning “the look, feel, and taste of our wines is unique” and winemakers “know exactly what is happening with the varieties they work with,” finding the “best expressions” from Australian “sites, soils, and climates.” Hudson “surprises” consumers with Pinot Noir from five different regions, and Loewy points to how Semillon production techniques in Hunter Valley result in the grape “expressing itself in such a different way there than anywhere else in the world.” Loewy reiterates Davidson’s point that winegrowers “have got it pretty well” which grapes perform best in which regions and they they are “always experimenting with new varietals,” keeping climate change in mind. Miles-Steiner applauds Aussie winemakers for this work, and finds that “almost universally” they are striving to “learn more and make better wine each year.”
Gatekeepers to Success
So how can Australian wine best channel its quality and history to consumers? Loewy has noticed that “in the last year or two, sommeliers and fine wine shop owners are highly interested in regional Australia,” with press interest quickly following, meaning that if we follow the past patterns that initially developed consumers’ misconceptions, new consumer interest will follow suit. In addition, with many bars and restaurants indefinitely closed due to the pandemic, consumers no longer have as many opportunities for one-on-one conversations with somms, which positions retailers as the primary gatekeepers, and underlines the importance of a vibrant and steady stream of information and education from distributors to off-premise vendors. As Miles-Steiner divulged, it was her education through Wine Australia that sparked her now-burning passion for Aussie wines, and as someone who thinks “really highly” of the category, she makes sure it gets a seat at the table.
By spinning passion and education into a singular message, Loewy has found that consumers tend to resonate with “family stories” and interesting production facts, noting that some “tiny producers” are “flipping the industry on its head” with low intervention wines and wild ferments that would definitely appeal to the growing consumer demand for “lower alcohol” and “chuggable” wines. In larger retail spaces, Loewy feels that though organization of the wine aisles differs between individual stores, Australian wines would benefit from categorization by varietal as opposed to region, explaining that if a consumer is looking for a Sauvignon Blanc, they wouldn’t necessarily go to the Australia aisle, but if there were an entire section dedicated to that varietal set, the odds would be much higher that they’d pick up an Aussie offering. She discloses that to prove her theory “we’ve been encouraging people to sneak that varietal into California and see if it moves,” and the resulting “increased movement” confirms that “sets organized by variety” can help sell wines that “don’t enjoy the benefit of widespread regional name-recognition.”
Once a consumer’s curiosity is piqued, Hudson believes that the value of Aussie wines will keep them trying more. With greater land availability and therefore lower production costs, allowing room for innovation, Hudson reasons that this creates “cutting edge winemakers that do not need to follow rules” and results in wines “in the $15-$30 range” that “over-deliver in quality.” Davidson feels that “the cross section of varieties and styles means there is literally something for everyone” and that consumer recognition of the diversity of the Australian category “gives them an opportunity to see the price/quality ratio with premium, regionally expressive wines,” further confirming that “recent US statistics are clearly showing growth in those premium price points.”
Though its history of production may be short, the combination of diverse and unique growing conditions, prolifically creative producers, vehement educated ambassadors like Loewy (who proudly declares “I live and breathe this stuff”), and keen consumers leads to the conclusion that Australian wine is bursting with potential for growth and success.